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The Likud has shifted straight from the political battle over whether to advance its primaries to a new clash over the vacancies in the cabinet created by the resignations of Binyamin Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky.
Sharon's associates have said that when the Knesset returns to session on October 31, the prime minister will ask the MKs to approve the appointments of Likud MKs Ze'ev Boim and Roni Bar-On. Sharon will name the lucky one as minister of industry, trade and labor, and the other as immigrant absorption minister.
The winner will control a ministry budget of more than NIS 3.5 billion, hobnob among the nation's tycoons and travel around the world to sign trade agreements. The loser will inherit a paltry NIS 1.34b. budget, spend his time with new immigrants and will be lucky to be invited to Ben-Gurion Airport to greet the latest planeload of starry-eyed American immigrants brought by Nefesh B'Nefesh.
It is no wonder that both Boim and Bar-On are campaigning aggressively to not be appointed absorption minister. Bar-On was even offended by a reporter's question suggesting that he could receive the portfolio.
Tourism Minister Avraham Herschson was also offered the Absorption portfolio, but he chose the tourists over the people who are here to stay. The most Zionist ministry in the cabinet has become a pariah portfolio.
Tzipi Livni has limited her presence in the Absorption Ministry since she received the coveted Justice portfolio in December. After a full day in the Justice Ministry, she comes to the Absorption Ministry a few nights a week to put in some time.
Perhaps the only politician who has made helping immigrants her top priority is Deputy Immigrant Absorption Minister Marina Solodkin, a woman who is respected by Russian immigrants as their top advocate but for most other Israelis remains in the shadow of her former political patron, Sharansky. Sharon appointed her on March 31 to return to the post that she held in 1999 when Ehud Barak was prime minister.
Solodkin says she understands the reasons of Boim and Bar-On, she is friends with both and she can work well under either of them. She has no designs on heading the ministry when she knows she has to be thankful to Sharansky, who resigned to get her into the Knesset, and Sharon for promoting her despite her lack of support inside the Likud.
"I think Israelis don't understand the ministry's importance, but for immigrants, it comes after only Defense and Education," Solodkin said. "Running the ministry well can give a party votes and mishandling it can take votes away. That's why the Absorption portfolio is so important and that's why Sharon appointed me. He knew that after Netanyahu did his damage, he had to fix the situation."
Solodkin says Netanyahu lost immigrant votes for the Likud when he decided to start taxing overseas income, take away mortgage grants and remove benefits from single mothers regardless of whether they work. She voted against the state budget in 2003 and 2004 to protest the moves.
Following the merger of the Likud with Yisrael Ba'aliya, Solodkin became part of the Sharon camp in the Likud, supporting disengagement while her erstwhile colleagues Sharansky and Yuli Edelstein vehemently opposed it. Solodkin says she opposes a split in the Likud, but she declined to say whether she could remain in a party headed by Netanyahu or whether she would leave the Likud to join a new party headed by Sharon.
"I obviously prefer Sharon as chairman of the Likud and prime minister, in matters of diplomacy and security and socio-economic policies," Solodkin says. "Bibi did everything possible to harm the Likud's image among the immigrants and I am doing everything possible to fix what he did. With his appetite for reforms, he forgot that the country can only handle so much when we are still absorbing immigrants and still in a state of war."
Solodkin says she has options in other parties but she says she is "with Sharon until the end" and she "prefers to stay in a centrist, nationalist, liberal party like the Likud." So she has started working on attracting support of Likud activists, starting with the party branch in her hometown of Ashkelon, but she has a lot of work to do, as polls have given her little chance of getting elected by the Likud central committee.
As for the political future of Sharansky, Solodkin calls him "a great man who brought the Jews out of Russia" and who can contribute to the world beyond politics as a "global, moral personality." But she says he paid a political price for deciding to live with Anglo-Saxons in Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood and not among Russian immigrants.
While Solodkin says that the Jewish Agency's advise and consent committee was wrong to prevent Sharansky from seeking the agency's interim chairmanship, she says she understands why Sharon tried to prevent a disengagement critic from seeking the position. She says Sharansky also harmed his chances when he voted against the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions.
"I am sure that God wants all streams of Judaism to come to Israel," Solodkin says. He told Abraham 'Lech lecha' (go, go) and it applies to all his descendents."
Solodkin is at the ministry at a time when aliya from the West is up while immigration from the Former Soviet Union has leveled off. The number of immigrants in 5765 rose to 23,124 from 21,604 the previous Jewish calendar year. A record number of Jews are arriving from France and 3,200 Jews are expected to arrive in 2005 from the US, the most since 1983.
Praising the incentives provided to American immigrants by Nefesh B'Nefesh and to French immigrants by Ami, Solodkin wants similar benefits provided to young families from the Former Soviet Union.
Asked about concerns that a significant percentage of immigrants from the FSU nowadays are not Jewish according to halacha, Solodkin says that the Conversion Institute in the Prime Minister's Office is functioning well and that "after three generations of communism, if people know who they are and where they came from, it is Israel's job to accept them."
Solodkin says that efforts have to be made to bring more Jews from Russia and the Ukraine due to these countries' shaky political futures and to meet Sharon's goal of bringing a million immigrants to Israel. To help attract more Western immigrants, she wants the tax on foreign assets canceled and she will be meeting with Acting Finance Minister Ehud Olmert on November 1 to launch a fund to help immigrants start new businesses.
"If an immigrant has no rights and there is no justice, they won't come," she says. "Starting all over in a new place is not easy. It's impossible with no advantages. They will lose their energy to deal with the situation."
To help Ethiopian immigrants, she suggests helping them learn Hebrew, employment programs and using educated Ethiopian immigrants to help their community. The Absorption Ministry and the Jewish Agency are launching a program at the Agency's Board of Governors meeting at the end of the month to promote the integration of Ethiopians into professions and mainstream Israeli life.
Solodkin's pet projects include expanding Amharic programming on public radio, helping immigrant single mothers and advancing a program started by Edelstein teaching new immigrants what it means to have a Jewish, democratic state.
"Immigrants need to have a positive image of Israel despite all their complaints," she says. "I want them to know who the streets in Israel are named after, whether it is Herzl, Nordau or Abarbanel."
Solodkin moved to Israel in 1991 during the Gulf War with her parents, husband, two small children, and thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Since then, thousands of immigrants have arrived and the conditions of immigrants in Israel have gotten much better.
"I was part of the Exodus from Egypt," Solodkin says. "I hope 5766 will be better than the previous year, with quiet, prosperity, less brotherly hatred and more brotherly love."
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